A historic drought. Taking on the Goliath of for-profit power providers. Putting in place cutting edge pressurized technology for irrigation water delivery. Defending water rights against federal and state edicts. Deploying extensive research and investment in the Stanislaus River to enhance the survival of endangered Chinook salmon. A financial balance sheet and reserve that is virtually unparalleled for a government agency.
They are all things that occurred on the watch of South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields, who retired this past week.
Shields, though, will be the first to tell you that the success the SSJID has enjoyed during the past 11-plus years is due to a board that has vision and isn’t afraid to make bold moves and big investments after carefully vetting options. He also points out that how well the South County has weathered the severe drought so far and the water conservation and reduced retail power cost initiatives that are moving forward would have been impossible without the SSJID having a 106-year track record of forward thinking.
“This district has historically made big investments,” Shields noted. “It was pretty bold back in 1909 bonding themselves for an unheard of then $1.9 million to secure senior water rights. It was just as bold after World War II to bond for $50 million (to build Tri-Dam). Even the decision to build Sand Bar (power generation facility) in the 1970s was bold. It was criticized heavily back then because it was only for power generation but it turned out to be a very effective move.”
Shields would love to ride out the drought by guiding SSJID into even more aggressive water conservation investments, continue walking the tight-rope between protecting the Stanislaus River and protecting water users, defending attacks on the district’s adjudicated and superior water rights, and continue the battle to enter the retail power business and deliver on the promise of lower rates across the board for urban and farm users.
“It’s time to do other things,” said Shields who — along with his wife Mary — lives in Ripon.
But that doesn’t mean Shields is stepping away from the effort to keep power costs down.
He will continue to serve as a board member with the California Toward Utility Rate Normalization that has a track record of being the leading consumer advocate in rate cases pushed by for-profit utilities such as PG&E before the California Public Utilities Commission.
Shields views getting the San Joaquin Local Agency Formation Commission last December to vote to allow SSJID to supply lower retail power service by essentially eliminating the $12 million in annual profit that PG&E earns from serving Ripon, Manteca, and Escalon along with the surrounding countryside and keeping it in the pockets of local residents, farmers, businessmen, and government agencies “as one of the proudest moments in my tenure.”
“Rest assured that your (SSJID) board is as committed as ever to move energy policy decisions out of the CPUC and back into our own community where locally elected leaders are accountable and accessible to you,” Shields said. “Federal indictments and billion dollar fines will not change the culture at the CPUC or at PG&E.”
The SSJID is now involved in litigation with PG&E as they move toward acquiring the local distribution system.
As for the historic California drought, Shields said “there is no water agency better prepared to manage your water and meet the growers and local communities’ needs than SSJID.”
He pointed to the Nick DeGroot Surface Water Treatment Plant with its state-of-the-art treatment process as an example of the district addressing urban needs as well as farming needs.
“We must continue to work as one community to accommodate the needs of Ripon, Escalon, and Manteca along with the greater farm community as challenges face our groundwater basin,” Shields added. “But here again, SSJID is in better position than anywhere in the valley to work through these issues.”
That also means the SSJID continuing working with Oakdale Irrigation District to enhance the Stanislaus River to provide for a healthy population of native species. The joint annual initiative between improvements and gathering science to make sure the watershed can healthily support a multitude of uses is costing the two districts at least $1 million annually.
“We have been blessed to have access to clean Sierra surface water for over 100 years; however, that blessing comes with a responsibility,” he noted. “We must continue to use this water efficiently and we must continue to honor and protect the biological integrity of the Stanislaus River watershed.”
To that end, Shields said the district needs to continue to make investments in innovative technology and farming practices “and continue the hard work on the part of the district and our growers to conserve the precious water supply we have.”
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Board of Directors for their support, to the incredible staff at SSJID for their hard work and dedication, and to a wonderful community for their friendship,” Shields said. “It has been an honor and privilege to serve you.”